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Revisiting the “helpmeet” in Genesis 2:18: what does “ezer” signify in early Iron Age Israel?

In what has become a very intermittent series on the Eden story in Genesis chs. 2-3, I wish to update my thoughts on the famous term “ezer” in 2:18—the term traditionally translated as “helpmeet” in the King James Version. Of course, the observation that it is not good that the man remain alone colors the overall context; Yahweh surely means that the addition of the “ezer” be, yes, an actual helpmeet to him. And, yes, the “ezer” is to be someone “like him.” All this is well known. But not as well known (at least to me) is how “like him” and how truly “helpful” this “ezer” actually was, at least in the early period of Israelite history (known, archaeologically, as Iron Age I). Life was, to put it mildly, very difficult then, at least in the highlands of Palestine/Israel with its terraced, dry-farming subsistence existence. (My use of the term  “Palestine/Israel” is meant to be simply a neutral geographical indicator of what is currently the regions of upland Israel and the West Bank.) The “man” needed desperately a “helpmeet” simply to survive (i.e., not starve, and not die childless!) in that time and place.

In her excellent recent study entitled Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford, 2013), Professor Carol Meyers has painted an unforgettable portrait of the difficult life such agrarians faced at the time in their rugged highlands west of the Jordan River, from “Dan to Beersheba.” In sharp contrast to the irrigated lowlands of both Egypt and Mesopotamia, the terraced dry-farming of the Israelite hill country depended totally on the winter rainfalls for success. (Ideally, the “early rains” of late October would culminate in the “latter rains” of February and March, bringing agricultural sufficiency.) But waterproof cisterns would still be required to store enough water year-round for domestic use—they would be filled both by channeling surface runoffs from the winter rainy season as well as collecting water manually from nearby shallow pools. (In most areas, drawing water from wells dug down to the water table was not an option.)

Professor Meyers describes the Israelite diet as a “Mediterranean mixed system”; grain was central but crop diversity was important. (She estimated that about 75 percent of their daily caloric intake came from grain.) “Bread (or other grain products) was clearly the staff of life” (p. 48). Now, the alert reader can anticipate where this discussion is heading: woman as “helpmeet” is literally (and literarily) crucial to the making of bread, and thus to the success of the household in Iron I Age Israel. As Meyers notes, the phrase “only a wife and mother” would have been incomprehensible to Israelite agrarians! (And I have not even alluded to the crucial issues of childbirth and child-rearing so essential to the preservation of life and culture in that world!)

Now, of course, the history of interpretation of the Hebrew term “ezer” is long and complex, and itself subject to later interpretive biases. But I think the original context of Genesis 2:18 is surprisingly straightforward—the first “man” required the “helping” of the first “woman” for any chance of success outside the Garden. Professor Meyers’ happy formulation of the phrase “everyday Eve” to describe family life in ancient Israel—Yahweh truly providing nothing less than a vital “helpmeet” for the hapless human—has much to say to us even today. I don’t know about you, but my own life would have only been a series of disasters apart from my own Eve, yes, my very own “rib” who has cooked the food, borne and reared the children, and brought much spice to my life over the years. In any case, let us no longer quibble over the original significance and status of the “ezer” Yahweh brought to the man in the Garden—she was (and is) nothing less than “the source of life” (what “Eve” literally means in the Hebrew), and the “mother of all the living” (Adam’s own apt phrase, as found in Genesis 3:20).


For this reason, leave . . . and cleave? (Genesis 2:24)

OK, in the rat-race called life, I have been busy. Therefore, my “occasional” series on the Garden of Eden has become very occasional indeed. But I have not been too busy to ignore Professor Ziony Zevit’s excellent new book (What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013]), and so I interrupt this very-occasional blog with an emergency exegesis of Genesis 2:24, the passage which draws a very familiar conclusion from Adam’s first meeting with Eve, his very “bone and flesh.” The NIV version of this verse reads as follows: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.”

Now the following retranslation owes its very existence to Zevit’s provocative discussion found on pages 151-157 of his book (along with his endnotes on pp. 304-306). [Note to reader: always read the endnotes! I (and many others) often put my best stuff there.] Zevit argues effectively that the Hebrew for the verb “to leave” [root ‘ayin-zayin-beth] probably here means “to help, fix, make whole, set right.” In other words, we are to read here (as in Nehemiah 3:8, 34, and probably elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible) an entirely different set of meanings from the traditional reading “to leave.” In the relatively recent lexicon by Koehler and Baumgartner, this “‘azab” II (that is, an entirely different root than “‘azab” I, “to leave”) means “to restore, put in order.” Other recent lexicons suggest much the same thing.

But of course, one should ask, why should we go against the seemingly plain sense of the familiar Hebrew verb, “to leave, abandon,” in this most familiar verse? Zevit’s provocative counter-question, “what is the ‘therefore,’ then there for?” becomes very appropriate at this point [note I have rephrased Zevit’s counter-question a bit]. In other words, why does the “therefore” at the beginning of this verse suggest that “leaving and cleaving” follows logically from the preceding verses? How can we deduce the “therefore” of “leaving and cleaving” from Eve’s category of “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” and then being designated “woman” [Hebrew, “‘isshah“] since she was taken from “man” [Hebrew, “‘ish“]?

OK, the “cleave” part makes sense. A man is to “cling to” his woman, they are to become “one flesh”—that makes perfect sense in the larger context. But the “leaving” the man’s parents (the traditional Hebrew translation of “‘azab” I, can even imply “abandoning” them, which was [and is] unthinkable in traditional Middle Eastern culture)—that is less obvious. Why not, then, Zevit’s alternative interpretation for this verse, “Therefore a man strengthens/supports/helps his father and his mother and clings to his woman/wife and they become one flesh.” And why not his comment, “the verse implies that since parents birth sons and (may) provide those sons with wives (see Gen[esis] 28:2; 38:2, 6; Judg[es] 14:2-3), every son is obliged to care for his father and his mother (Exod[us] 20:12; Deut[eronomy] 5:16) and to cling to his wife simultaneously. Understood this way, the verse also alludes to the formation of extended families embracing three generations in a single household that were typical of Israelite society” (p. 157, italics added).

Well, here is something to chew on. And, something which gives biblical warrant to the now common practice in North America (and elsewhere) of adult children (even married!) coming home to roost in the parents’ basement. So, “cleave” to your significant other, but don’t “leave” the ancestral homeland, rather “strengthen” it like good Israelites did back in the Iron Age. Pay some of the bills, already. Be good kids. Even if your mother-in-law does get on your nerves!

[The above comments represent some recently reinterpreted practical advice from the Garden of Eden story. However, such emergency exegesis always remains subject to change, especially as it flies in the face of some 2500 years of tradition. So stay tuned.]

Shalom. And give your parents and in-laws an extra hug soon.

One of Those Days . . .

[The following is part three of an occasional series on the Garden of Eden (Genesis chs. 2-3).]

Ever have one of those days? You know, with the kids underfoot, so many other things clamoring to get done, then hearing the ominous silence . . .

As a sometimes manny (male nanny) of three year old twins, I know that the most scary noise they can make is absolute silence, when you know they are up to something, and therefore they are not making even a peep! Better, screaming, running, crashing noises, than that ominous silence. What are they up to now?

In a largish house marked here and there by errant Disney stickers and a few permanent-marker scribbles (sort of like youth-gang hash-tags), these twins can get into mischief pretty quickly. (Wait until they are four or five years old!) To be sure, most of their mischief ends up as quite harmless, and even comical at times. Yet, when permanent markers are involved, I guess I may end up with “one of those days,” when the punishment does not fit the crime. Stern pronouncements of doom thunder from my lips (or as the blonde twin pronounces it, “whips”). “Never again . . . ” I pontificate, and my quick, urgent interrogations lead to evasive responses: “but she found it, and gave it to me . . . ,” “no, it was her idea . . . “; you get the idea. And from the Garden, no, ahem, protected play area, they are expelled. “Never again!”

As you have surmised, I find clear parallels here with the Garden of Eden story (especially Gen 3:1-19). Yahweh, the busy “parent” (hey, he has an entire universe to take care of), can’t watch his Eden (aka protected play area) all the time. The kids are silent, in fact, they quickly go into hiding when he finally takes his walk in the garden in the early evening (see v. 8). “Where are you?” he calls out to Adam. Soon he learns that Adam has found out that he is “naked” and therefore embarrassed and in hiding. “Who told you this?” is the next quick question, and we remember the immediate followup, “Have you eaten from the tree I told you not to eat from?” (My now-grown children always wondered why we parents knew almost immediately what they as children had done in secret—as if we had never been children ourselves!)

Now, of course, comes passing the buck: “the woman (girl) you put here with me—she gave me some fruit . . . ” So the girl is immediately inquisitioned (I just created a new verb): “the serpent deceived me . . . ” (And why do harried parents allow serpents [or permanent-magic-markers] to be found in supposedly child-proof play areas is a mystery for the ages, I admit.) And finally, of course, the harsh pronouncements of doom: “never again . . . you will regret this forever . . . cursed . . . all the days of your life . . . ” (you get the idea). Maybe Yahweh the manny overreacted here a bit?

The story ends of course with the permanent removal from the Garden. But at least the errant couple are dressed in proper style (in garments of skin [leather], no less) before their forced banishment from “Paradise” (see v. 21). I remember “back in the day” when in primary school the scary pronouncement that “this will be in your permanent record” successfully deterred at least some childish criminals from their nefarious actions—actions usually undertaken in strict silence. Threats of permanence can at least deter temporarily some petty criminal acts. And, yes, some “original” sin is not all that original. And some parental (or care-take-orial) over-reactions are not all that original either.

Some food for thought this December solstice. Have a blessed Holiday Season!


Good Horticulturalists—Yahweh, Eve, Both, Neither?

In my continuing series of blogposts on the first several chapters of the book of Genesis, I want to report that it has only recently come to my attention (and, yes, I should have noticed this decades ago), that Yahweh (the God who first made the Garden of Eden as well as the man meant to cultivate it [see Gen 2:4b-16]) had already proffered a forthright evaluation of all the trees he had planted in the Garden as “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Gen 2:9, NIV). Later on, prompted by a talking snake of all things, Eve looked again at the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and she decided that it was indeed “good for food and pleasing to the eye” (Gen 3:6, NIV), and—as a bonus—also “desirable for gaining wisdom.” Thus, she literally confirmed Yahweh’s two implicit criteria for the trees found in the Garden, plus she presented a third criterion: the gaining of wisdom (Hebrew, khokmah, a word which clearly includes the results of experience, whether favorable or unfavorable). So, ironically, Yahweh and Eve essentially agree on how to evaluate the trees in the Garden. But are they correct?

Now, as all parents and grandparents know, the gaining of wisdom by their children/grandchildren can be a good or bad thing. I slip into a bad habit in front of my grandtwins once (for example, picking my nose), and they never forget it (why can’t they notice the many times I do things correctly, and profit from all those good actions?). Well, as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

“For with much wisdom (khokmah) comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief” (Eccl 1:18, NIV)

College instructors know that the transmission of worldly wisdom in class can bring mixed results—that is why it is a good thing that most of their students are very sleepy, and therefore miss much of what is going on (but to be safe, some religious schools greatly limit what an instructor can say, just in case someone might be awake at any given time).

But, back to Eve: she decides to eat fruit from the tree, and even gives some to her male companion, “who was with her” (Gen 3:6, NIV). Then (and only then?) “the eyes of both of them were opened,” and they now recognized that they were naked, with all the coming-of-age implications that would entail. Changes had to take place immediately, and in this case, fig leaves (which are large but flimsy) had to serve as clothing (talk about being green!). So my question remains, was Yahweh correct in his assessment that all the trees in the Garden were pleasing to the eye and good for food? How about Eve, who came to the same conclusion concerning the otherwise forbidden tree of knowledge? And, for that matter, what about such “knowledge” anyway? I suspect that both Yahweh and Eve were knowledgable horticulturalists, as well as free and independent spirits. But neither such biological acumen nor theological independence could forestall the seemingly inevitable results: hard work, pain, and drudgery (see Gen 3:16-19) which the non-Garden environment only had to offer.

Growing up may well be a painful process, but again I suspect it still inevitably must take place (see my previous post). And let us discount both the biological study as well as the interminable theological arguments about predestination and free-will; they will at best only muddy the process and thus postpone the inevitable. Leaving home (parents, and the Edenic-like memories of one’s childhood) must take place some time or other for all of us, and even if we agree with God’s positive assessment of various aspects of our former childlike environment, that cannot save us from the heartache which must accompany the hard-won wisdom of adulthood. But I leave the last word again to the writer of Ecclesiastes:

“Sorrow is better than laughter, / because a sad face is good for the heart,

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, / but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.

It is better to heed a wise man’s rebuke / than to listen to the song of fools.

Like the crackling of thorns under the pot/ so is the laughter of fools. / This too is vapor.” (Eccl 7:3-6; the term “vapor” is a literal translation of the Hebrew hebel, often translated “meaningless” as in the NIV)

So, check out the fruit of the attractive trees nearby, and stay awake in class. But don’t forget how dangerous the results of those actions might become!


The Garden of Eden as “childproof play area”?

For the next several blogposts, I plan to spend some time on the first part of the book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible both for Jews and for Christians). I am, ahem, of a certain age, and I have spent years, even decades, studying these most fascinating, frustrating, and ultimately fruitful chapters of the “book of origins.” I am not even going to try to link these chapters with science and scientism, so don’t worry about another amateur geologist weighing in, parading his ignorance. But there is still a lot to talk about, as we soon shall see.

I am an active grandparent of twin girls, now almost four years of age (the girls, that is, not me). So much of the following is informed by the adventures and misadventures of “active grandparenting.” The Garden of Eden is described in Genesis chapters two and three, and the story is well-known, and often depicted as resulting in humanity’s “first sin.” But I am going to propose another interpretation of these two familiar chapters of scripture. First of all, like the rabbis (I was going to type “Jewish rabbis,” but I think all rabbis, by definition, are Jewish), I have come to believe that the Adam and Eve story is a “coming of age” story, about people growing up and discovering the joys and travails of adulthood. Consider the following: they were naked “and felt no shame” (Gen 2:25, NIV), that is a perspective typical of children in the ancient Near East; and later when they did become ashamed of their nakedness, they tried sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves (fig leaves are large in size, but not all that durable—this is just the thing children would have done). Also, Adam back in the beginning of the story was formed specifically from “dust of the ground” (verse 7), and placed in a special (and presumably specially protected) “Garden,” where rivers nourished the ground, much gold was readily available, and all kinds of trees were specially planted (and, later, animals created) for his particular enjoyment (and remember, in the previous chapter, both men and women [plural] had already been created to bear the “image of God”). Also, the way that both Yahweh God and the human Adam discovered that no bird or animal, wild or domestic, would alleviate Adam’s loneliness (see 2:18-20) sounds like the discovery of a new parent with his or her child (in modern western terms, neither Cookie Monster, nor Big Bird, nor even Elmo could do the job). No, it takes another human, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” to serve as a “helper” for the solitary man (or boy), who was generically named “Adam” (Hebrew for “human, male,” and derived most fittingly from the term “adamah,” ground or soil).

Well, in any case, there was the proverbial “snake in the garden.” Presumably another special creation of God for Adam’s sake (compare 2:19-20 with 3:1), this snake proved to be clever indeed. He talks specifically to the woman (or girl), the one who probably heard only second-hand Yahweh’s strong prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge. “Did God really say . . . ?” (A sidenote here—the great Hebrew Bible scholar Brevard Childs was surely correct to label this Eden narrative as “anti-wisdom”—cautioning its hearers and readers to beware the pursuit of wisdom as very dangerous.) But what is adulthood? Surely, nothing other than the pursuit of wisdom “of the knowledge of good and evil”—in other words, the wisdom of independent discovery and personal experience! Often this time of life (in modern western terms, “adolescence,” or the teen-age years) is fraught with peril, as all parents come to know; but no child (or teen) can stay in the Garden of Childhood forever, even if nearly all parents wish he or she could. We will return to Eve’s three independent criteria for choosing to eat of the tree (see 3:6) in a future blogpost, also the resultant “curses” on her, on her male companion, and on the talkative serpent (“curses” only in the sense that they represent life as usual in the ancient Near East). Suffice it to say here that when children grow up, they must live in grown-up places. Childhood gardens cannot remain their protected domiciles any longer!

(And Yahweh God does provide them with much better clothing, “garments of skin” (3:21), for their post-garden adventures. He—like most parents saddened by their children growing up and leaving home (compare 2:24!)—wants still to do the right thing.

Well, stay tuned (and feel free to comment), as we examine these evocative ancient narratives more deeply in the next several blogposts.


“The Word became flesh . . . ” redux

To my blog subscribers: I still exist, and I do plan to publish more blogposts. It has been a difficult set of weeks, with unusual demands (and opportunities) in the Barnes household. But things should ease off now.

I thought I would repeat one of my favorite blogposts from the past to start off this blogpost “revival.” I still hear (and I always will, I suspect) confusion among some Christians between Jesus as “the Word,” and the (Christian) Bible as “the word.” And I still fear that there is too much “Bibliodolitry” (worship of the Bible) in Christian circles. Remember, we worship the Person of Jesus as Son of God, and we do not worship any book, no matter how profound it may be. So here goes:


I have been noticing something over the past few years, something which has concerned me more and more—Christians unthinkingly equating the primacy of Jesus (“the Word”), with the Bible (also colloquially known as “the word”). The first chapter of the Gospel of John declares in the very first verse, “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God”; and later on in verse 14 we read that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Christians will immediately recognize that both these references to the “Word” are references to Jesus of Nazareth, considered by Christians to be the Messiah and the Son of God. The reference to “the Word” therefore is to a person, not to a written book or part of a book. (What the Greek term “logos,” translated here as “word,” signifies theologically is more complicated—probably something like “first principle” or the like is in view—but that issue is beyond the scope of this post.)

Now it is common for Christians also to identify the Bible (and even more typically, the New Testament) as “the word.” Christians ask, “what does the word have to say about tithing/divine healing/church on Sunday/etc.?” They are urged to read “the word” in their devotional time every day. They are to compare any new or different theological idea with “the word.” You get the idea. And you also probably get the idea that “the Word” [Jesus] can be uncritically equated with “the word” [the Bible]. That equation is, of course, not accurate or precise theologically, as Christians would see it, but it still can become second nature to them. And then the Bible becomes divine—in some cases a collection of magical formulas which should be memorized so as to be recalled at a moment’s notice. Now don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible, and I have been led to spend my entire life (at no little cost to my immediate family) studying and proclaiming it. But the Bible is not divine—in fact, from a Christian point of view, the Bible, apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is just another collection of ancient books. For Christians, Jesus is divine; in fact, he is the center of all existence. We are to do nothing apart from his teachings and his example. We are even to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. (Sorry to go all Dan Brown here with the italics.) 

So next time I hear the reverential intoning of “studying the word,” I might bring up this question: are you studying Jesus? (as all Christians at all times should), or are you studying the Bible? (which, apart from Jesus, spiritually signifies nothing). And as I blog with fellow Bible-readers on issues such as evolution or the age of the earth (believe it or not, in North America these are hot topics among quite a few Christians), I hope I both remember and remind my fellow bloggers that for Christian believers, it is Jesus who matters, not the six (or seven) days of creation week in Genesis chapter one, or whatever. “In the beginning was the Word.”



And on the Sabbath he rested . . .

This will be my last blogpost on tithing, a cool seven blogposts in all (I was aiming for ten—you, know ten on ten, and all that, but I now think seven will do quite nicely). I will include here all the rest of the references to tithing in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, so as to exhaust the topic—but, I hope, not in an exhausting way. So here goes . . .

We have already discussed good King Hezekiah (see the two-part blogpost on Hezekiah and his curious seal impression [“It the glory of God to conceal a matter,” and “King Hezekiah, man of God, continued”]), and the book of 2 Chronicles (which directly follows 1 Chronicles, in case you have trouble finding it) adds even more to this king’s already strong Yahwistic reputation (again, even though he has, of all things, an Egyptian-style dung beetle on his stamp seal!). In 2 Chronicles 31:2-12, Hezekiah is urging support for the priests and Levites, in accord with the priestly traditions found in Torah (compare my recent blogpost entitled “Pyramid Scheme”). In a way reminiscent with another section of Torah where Moses is evidently surprised at the generosity of the people in giving toward the Tabernacle (see Exodus 36:2-7), King Hezekiah and the priests were faced with the pleasant problem of the Temple contributions piling up “in heaps” with “this great amount . . . left over” (2 Chronicles 31:10, NIV). I am not the first commentator to notice that many church and synagogue leaders would love to have to face this problem today!

Similar to this Chronicles text are the ones in Nehemiah (10:38-39; 12:44; 13:5,12) where once again the tithes (plus other offerings) are to support the priests and Levites. Once again, the “pyramid scheme” is utilized (one tenth of the tenth) to make sure that the rural Levites (who are given the task of collecting the tithe) adequately support the centralized temple in Jerusalem, with its offerings, its priests, and its Levites. In ch. 10, the text on tithing concludes its exhortation with the promise, “We will not neglect the house of our God” (v. 39b, NIV).

The final reference to the tithe in the Christian Bible is to be found in Luke 18:9-14, in Jesus’ parable about the rich man and the tax collector, both going to the Temple to pray. Which one was proud enough to mention he paid his tithes? You guessed it, it was the rich man: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, however, wouldn’t even look up to heaven as he beat his chest in sorrow and prayed, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus concluded his parable, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Was Jesus then against tithing? Of course not! (see the “Go to Bethel and sin” blogpost for details). Jesus just wanted us to be sure to keep our priorities straight. Don’t fixate on straining out a gnat, while swallowing a camel! (see Matthew 23:23-24; compare Luke 11:42). And this is probably as good a way to end our tithing series as any: God’s will as found in the Hebrew Bible explicitly included giving tithes and offerings for the poor (the widow, the orphan, the alien [non-native sojourner], and the Levite [as well as for the priests]); but by New Testament times, simple generosity became the rule. And in both Testaments, justice and the love of God must above all be emphasized (Deut 6:4-9; 10:12-22; Luke 11:2-4, 42; etc.). So let us today do likewise.


“Go to Bethel and sin”

I live in Roseville, Minnesota, USA, close to a number of religious colleges and seminaries. One of these is Bethel University, just up the road a bit. It is a good school, and has a large theological library, which I have used with great profit from time to time (intellectual profit, that is—I haven’t yet figured out how to get paid monetarily to read books). So, the following comments are to be read in that light.

Amos, one of the most sarcastic of the Hebrew prophets (Malachi is another), declares to his listeners in chapter 4 to “go to Bethel and sin” (v. 4a, NIV). Later on in the same verse, he says, “Bring your a sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three years.” (That is the NIV version, but the Hebrew actually reads “bring your tithes every three days” [compare the NLT translation]; the NIV follows those who interpret the text in light of the “storehouse tithe” of the book of Deuteronomy paid every three years [see the “Robbing God?” blogpost for details]). Delighting in religious practice far beyond what the Torah dictates, and ignoring the ethical demands of the Torah—that is the sarcastic thrust of Amos’ comments throughout this entire passage: “brag about your freewill offerings—boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do” (v. 5b, NIV).

Now, we have already heard about the city of Bethel (or at least, about its ancestral site) in connection with the Ancient Near Eastern practice of tithing. Centuries earlier, Jacob the patriarch happened to be in that same location when, in a difficult time in his life, he promised God a tenth of his future wealth if God blesses and protects him (see the “God laughs at our plans?” blogpost for details). Now the name “Bethel” means “house of El (God),” so the present reference in Amos chapter 4 is particularly apt—in God’s house offering sacrifices daily, tithes every three days, also thank offerings and freewill offerings all the time—and boasting and bragging about their religious devotion—that is a recipe for sin if ever I heard one (please, I too am being sarcastic here). (I’ll refrain from further sarcasm concerning all the sermons I have heard about bringing the full tithe into the storehouse [taken as the local church] so that God can bless you, but that too may come under Amos’ “go to the house of God and sin” category as well). And for Christians, Jesus’ sarcastic comments about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees’ strict devotion to tithing also fits uncomfortably well:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law [the Torah]—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24, NIV; compare Luke 11:42 for a slightly gentler version of this saying).

So, the “takeaway” from this blogpost: do not go to Bethel and sin! Do not brag about paying your tithes every three days. Do not (for Christians, at least), be guilty of straining out a gnat [a tiny insect] and swallow a camel! Instead, let’s keep our priorities safe. And may our God take delight and bless our efforts.



As I write this in late August, 2013, my concluding comment of “Shalom” gains urgency as there is now all-too-much turmoil both in the nations of Egypt and Syria. Let us all earnestly pray, in our own fashion, for “shalom” [peace] to reign once and for all in the Middle East.



No, it’s not a Pyramid scheme . . . or is it?

Most people know about pyramid schemes. No, not the schemes which built the original pyramids in Egypt—back in the day (that is, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, around 2500 B.C., way before even the time of Abraham (see Gen 12:10-20), let alone Moses (see Exodus chapter 2 and following). No, the pyramid schemes I am thinking about are the network marketing schemes where someone sells a product, and the profit goes to him or her, plus somebody else (in the “upline”), and often somebody else above that second person—sometimes to five or even more levels. People make money off of those who they (or their “downline”) have previously recruited to do the work, and often the money can be quite lucrative indeed. Many people on the bottom, few at the top—whence the phrase “pyramid scheme.”

Now, some people in the church have called their current system of tithing as a pyramid scheme—and they have a point. Church members pay ten percent of their income to the local church (often, and in my view, mistakenly labeled the “storehouse”—see my first tithing blogpost on “robbing God”), and the local pastor or minister pays ten percent of his or her tithe to the district officials, and the district pays ten percent to the national headquarters, etc. Again, this quickly adds up to quite a hefty sum, at least for those who are at the top. Yes, a pyramid scheme (I remember a prominent official in the church I was attending, in a moment of unguarded candor in the pulpit, admitting just as much).

Now, is there any biblical warrant for such a practice? Not really, in my opinion, but there does seem to be somewhat of a parallel in the familiar tithing text found in Numbers 18:20-28 where the Levites (the Israelite religious officials serving in the Tabernacle under the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who himself was a Levite [that is, from the tribe of Levi]) would receive a tithe from the other tribes, and they in turn would pay a tithe on that tithe to the priests, or at least to Aaron the priest (see v. 28). The repeated rationale here is that neither the Levites nor the priest(s) have any land of their own, whence no harvest (this tithe is akin to the “storehouse tithe” of the book of Deuteronomy where in the third year, the widow, the orphan, the alien [non-native], and the Levite are to receive a tithe from the people of Israel—again, consult the “robbing God” blogpost for details). Hence, the double-level, tithe-of-a-tithe, procedure, which probably helped lead to the “pyramid scheme” of tithing found in some church denominations today. Another text, found in the last chapter of the book of Leviticus, which deals with 120% redemption of vows, also alludes in passing to tithing “to the Lord” (see vv. 30-33, again this tithe would presumably go to the priests). And, to be fair, the priests were also given portions of some of the meat offerings brought by the people to the Tabernacle, and later the Temple (see, for example, Lev 6:26; 7:6, 28-36; etc.; for a notorious example of the priestly abuse of this procedure, see 1 Sam 2:12-17). (I wonder what a modern priest or pastor or rabbi would do if a parishioner brought him or her a nice portion of a T-bone steak or ribeye in gratitude for a great homily or sermon or Torah meditation?)

So, no real pyramid schemes in the Bible. Just some well-deserved food offerings for some landless clergy (and their equally deserving assistants). Yet again, evidence for the practicality of the Bible. When one recalls the rarity of meat in the diet of the average Israelite (probably only several times a year), one can certainly sympathize with the priests sometimes enjoying a share of the barbecue after it was roasted on the altar. (The “every tenth animal” procedure in Lev 27:32-33 indicates that tithes of flocks and herds, as well as the more familiar fruit and grain, were sometimes given as well, at least according to the priestly materials found in the Torah.)

And once again, in the early church, no system of tithing—just lavish generosity—was ever effected. But God’s religious workers were still to be supported—for in both in the Old and New Testaments we are reminded, “Do not muzzle the ox when it is treading out the grain” (see Deut 25:4; 1 Timothy 5:18; and is it just me, or is Paul having some fun in the Timothy passage with his comparison of God’s workers to oxen?). Surely, the laborer is indeed worthy of his (or her) hire (1 Tim 5:18b; see also Luke 10:7 for Jesus’ very similar words on the subject).



God laughs at our plans?

OK, we continue in the “tithing” series, this time with the Patriarch Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a scoundrel, there is no question about that. Grandson of Abraham the “tither to Melchizedek” (see the last blogpost), he is the next person who is said to offer a tithe to God (see Genesis 28:20-22). But, quite unlike the generosity of his grandfather, Jacob couches his tithe offer in an “if-then” statement: “if God [Hebrew, ‘elohim, often a generic term for “God” or “the gods,” but here, as elsewhere, a reference to the Hebrew God “Yahweh”] will be with me, and protect me, and give me food and clothing, and bring me back home [to Canaan] safely, then I will erect a memorial pillar to him, and give him a tenth of everything he gives me.” (Spoiler alert: Yahweh does all that and more, as we soon shall see.)

Now, I immediately must digress. The name “Jacob” did not originally mean “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” (i.e., “scoundrel,” “deceiver,” or the like). It was a perfectly good west Semitic name (probably ya’kub-‘il or the like), meaning “may God protect (my heel).” Of course, in the Jacob-Esau narratives, Jacob grabs the “heel” [Hebrew, ‘aqeb] of his twin brother Esau when they were born (Gen 25:26; also see Esau’s bitter comments in 27:36), and he twice gets the better of his brother Esau later in life. But the biblical storytellers do not give negative names to their villains, just for our convenience! They rather enjoy wordplays, just as many of us do (for example, we would not give the name “Harry” to a baby covered with hair [that is, “hairy”], but we might enjoy the ironic echo that given name might elicit). So the name “Jacob,” a perfectly positive name originally, eventually gained an ironic overtone when this particular “Jacob” acted just like a “heel” in later life. (My favorite line from the original “Dear Abby” [a sharp-tongued advice columnist, back in the day]: “time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels.”) So, in conclusion: the patriarch Jacob (name originally meaning “may [God] protect my heel [i.e., backside]” or the like) now needs some serious protection, particularly from the rear—an angry Esau (see Gen 27:41) who has effectively chased Jacob out of the land God had promised to Abraham’s progeny, and back to Mesopotamia, Abraham’s original homeland. No wonder Jacob offers God a tithe of whatever wealth he eventually might obtain—this is a standard offer in the ancient Near East for gratitude for divine blessings (again, see the last blogpost for details).

Now, back to our story. Jacob is on his way to upper Mesopotamia, eventually to live with his uncle Laban, and Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel (Jacob eventually marries both of them—don’t ask—after being deceived by his dear uncle concerning their marriageability [see Gen 29:16-30]). Jacob does eventually become quite wealthy, after living in Laban’s land for some twenty years. He eventually has some twelve sons (yes, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel), and at least one daughter, Dinah. Yes, God has indeed protected Jacob’s “rear.” (By the way, we never hear about Jacob actually paying his promised tithe to God, but the later prominence of the shrine at Bethel—the spot where Jacob gave his original offer—implies that he probably did.)

Now, some twenty years later, Jacob is again on the run, this time from his angry uncle Laban (see Genesis ch. 31). But this time, he is running back to Canaan—yes, the very location where his brother Esau lives! So Jacob, as resourceful as ever, divides his considerable family and property into two groups, sending both of them ahead to meet “Lord Esau” (32:4). Jacob stays behind. Surely his problems are ahead of him, not behind him! (Laban had been effectively placated back at the end of the preceding chapter.) But, ahem, Jacob will soon have a new problem to face: an unexpected attack from his rear (see the famous passage found in Gen 32:22-32). Some sort of angel (or God?) wrestles with Jacob throughout the night, with the wrestling match ending at dawn, apparently without a clear winner. Jacob hangs on and insists his unknown opponent give him a blessing (v. 26b). To make a short story even shorter, Jacob ends up with a name change (“Israel”—probably originally meaning “may El persist, persevere,” but here understandably interpreted as “may he (continue to) persevere with El” [see v. 28]). By the way, it is not until ch. 35 that we read that Jacob returns to Bethel where God again blesses him (vv. 9-13), and Jacob puts up a stone pillar in his honor (v. 14—maybe he paid his tithe at that point, too—the text is silent on that point, although an offering of wine and olive oil is mentioned).

A quick observation: when you promise a tithe to God, and then later become quite wealthy, pay the tithe, so that you do not end up in an unexpected wrestling match with a divine opponent. But that might still take place. Then, hang on. You never know!

More seriously, this is not the main conclusion I want to draw from the Jacob story. Like life in general, walking with God (and perhaps wrestling with him) can be quite unpredictable. For those who have read ahead in Genesis, do recall that Jacob ends up living in, of all places, the land of Egypt—in another “soap opera” of a story—and he eventually ends up even “blessing” Pharaoh (see Gen 47:1-12, and especially vv. 7-10). Jacob does however return to Canaan, the Promised Land, but as a mummy—an embalmed body—to be interred in the ancestral burial place of Abraham and his family (see Gen 50:1-13). God was faithful to his servant Jacob. Except, perhaps, for that one unscheduled wrestling match at a place Jacob later named “Peniel”—“face of God”  (“where I saw God face to face, and my life was spared,” Gen 32:30). And there was that deception about Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, which went on for years and years. . . .

God sometimes laughs at our plans. But God is also faithful to his promises.

And just to be safe: when you promise a tithe or offering to God, and you later come into wealth and prominence, make sure you make good on what you have promised! You never know.